Second Lockdown Lessons From World Cities That Just Went Through It
As New York leaders warn that the state will likely return to the harsh lockdown measures of the spring — and other parts of the country face a similar fate as coronavirus cases and deaths reach new records — business owners abroad who have gone through multiple shutdowns help paint a picture of what may lie ahead.
Multiple global capitals are in their second or third round of closures as the virus many hoped was at least partly tamed bites back once more. Their real estate businesses have felt the impact in uniquely painful ways, and operators in places like London, Paris and Melbourne — all of which have lived through multiple government-imposed shutdowns this year — have collected wisdom along the way.
“Anger is not going to get you anywhere in the long term. You have to play what's in front of you,” said Harts Group co-founder James Hart, whose company owns 11 restaurants in London. “This could be the making of the business and you are a survivor, the good times are ahead.”
The plight of restaurateurs in London has been similarly perilous to that of New Yorkers. The UK has already gone under two national lockdowns, where all nonessential retail closed down.
This week, Greater London is now under what the UK government has termed “tier three”: a less strict iteration that means while shops, gyms and personal care services may remain open, bars, pubs, cafés and restaurants must now close except for delivery and takeout.
“We’re livid about it,” Hart said in an interview this week. "Hospitality has been completely scapegoated."
Still, he said, there have been moments of positivity that have emerged; a brutal set of lessons that had to be learned he believes has completely reshaped his business for the better. For starters, Harts Group carefully assessed when it makes more sense to close, whereas in the past they believed they had to open every day to be competitive.
Teams of staff were reduced, menus were closely assessed and pared down in some cases. As the economy was badly afflicted, landlords have been forced to reconsider rents, and have begun to make what he calls “sensible” deals.
“We’re learning we can take some control back … being locked down really sharpened the senses. You are fighting for the survival of your business, rather than trying to make more profit than you did last year,” he said. “We have lost staff, but in the very near future, we could see ourselves opening a few more restaurants.”
Ultimately, he thinks the pandemic has shown just how much hospitality matters to people in cities such as London and New York, and expects that and travel to come roaring back as the world emerges from this crisis. He urged those across the pond to take that to heart.
“The end is very likely to be around the corner. Hang tight and think positive, start thinking about spring next year,” he said. “If you can keep the business going … The good times for [the] hospitality sector will return, that is a real hope, though the short term is really, really shit."
But hope is proving elusive for many, even as the first set of vaccines has been administered. This spring and early summer were marked by communal clapping and supportive messages for health care workers — but as the pandemic has marched on, people’s patience has frayed.
Uncommon co-founder Tania Adir, whose firm owns five flexible workspace locations in London, noticed an increasing awareness throughout the year of how much various government-imposed shutdowns have weighed on people’s mental health.
“People are just fed up, though there is the British tough-upper-lip mentality,” she said, pointing to her regular conversations with London’s black cab drivers, famously chatty, who speak of frustration and desperation. “An average young Londoner has seven square meters, or 65 SF, to live in."
But Adir also noted that businesses have gotten over their initial shock and continued to try to plan for the future. In the first national lockdown, she said inquiries for their spaces came to a screeching halt. But as the year has gone on, the pace has picked up — though she said has formed a laser focus on working closely with current clients to keep them satisfied.
“Get to know your clients and try to and address their concerns, because people appreciate it if someone gets in touch with them,” she said. “We’ve had some challenging negotiation stages with some clients but once we’ve signed the amended agreements based on the reworked terms, we felt people almost trusted us more.”
In Paris, Jess Keane, the head chef and operations manager at Hardware Société, is catching up on sleep working on the restaurant’s spring brunch menu. The café down the hill from the Sacré-Cœur Basilica relied heavily on tourism — around 50% of its traffic came from out-of-towners, Keane said. But today, it is closed for the time being.
The first lockdown — or confinement, as it is called in France — came with just a few hours notice, and meant the café lost more than €1K in coffee, Keane said. It reopened after confinement ended in May, making use of the extra terrace space the government allowed for them.
Now, Paris restaurants can only serve takeaway, and brunch does not lend itself to takeaway. Keane said the company doesn't support using outfits like Uber Eats or Doordash for moral reasons. French President Emmanuel Macron outlined measures for “de-confinement” in stages, and a curfew will replace the lockdown. The leader himself tested positive for the virus on Thursday.
“We thought this lockdown would be a lot shorter, maybe six weeks, but we’ve been told that the likelihood is we may be allowed to open on Jan. 25, but now unless something drastically changes it probably won't be until the beginning of February," Keane said. "So another four months of closures, which basically means we’ve functioned for less than half of [the] year in 2020."
Though Hardware Société's French landlord has been relatively unsupportive with regards to rent, Keane said the company has been able to make use of government support to keep paying staff.
“Keep your stock low, try to have nothing when you close,” he urges any restaurant owner who may be facing a government-imposed closure. “A lot of places shut down ... unfortunately that is the nature of the beast, but if you can maintain your brand through this time and come out, you are going to be three steps ahead.”
On the other side of the world, Callum O’Sullivan is planning a party. He owns the Cloakroom, a menswear store and cocktail bar with locations in Melbourne, Montreal and Tokyo. In Melbourne, the city of 5 million people was under harsh lockdown measures for more than 100 days following an outbreak in July. Schools and businesses were closed for months.
Restrictions forbade travel of more than 3 miles from people’s homes unless they had a permit. Exercise outside was only allowed for an hour. A measure that kept 3,000 public housing residents under police guard for two weeks with little notice was found to be in breach of human rights laws, however.
In Australia, fewer than 1,000 people have died from the virus. In October, measures were relaxed as the infection was brought to almost zero. The country’s international border is still closed and mandatory government-run quarantine for returning citizens continues.
O’Sullivan said Cloakroom's Melbourne operation was kept afloat by doing bottled cocktails, and with tens of thousands in government grants.
“It feels normal … there's a feeling and energy in the air where it's like, 'Oh we can start to enjoy our lives again,'” he said.
In the long days of lockdown, he avoided the trap of drinking each day, instead opting for exercise.
"I just found that exercising, essentially every day, was something that was actually really good for me, providing a bit of clarity every day, I wasn't sitting around just drinking beers by myself in my apartment," he said. "The lockdown was a really difficult time, but I completely support it, because now we're out the other end my bar's the busiest it's ever been."